Why Creativity Shouldn't be an Overlooked Skill

February 14, 2012

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Creative thinking is as vital a job skill as work experience or training. Here we look at how creativity can serve as a business asset and why companies should pay more attention to it.

Although there is an increasing focus on improving the skills and knowledge of United States workers, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), creativity can be just as valuable in building a talented and high-performing workforce. In fact, many believe that employee creativity, and the resulting capacity for innovation, is the key to U.S. competitiveness in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

"While STEM will be the foundation of many global jobs in the 21st century, learners must engage creatively to take these skills to the next level. We cannot merely calculate our way out of the challenges we face today," Cisco's Corporate Social Responsibility blog notes. "Communication, creative thinking and divergent thinking come from being allowed the freedom to create. The digital learning movement is putting creative tools into the hands of learners to self express. Self-expression, in turn, teaches the fundamental skills we want from all employees: motivation, inspiration, determination — essentially helping individuals reach their full human potential."

Over the past 30 years, American employment has shifted toward high-skill and low-skill occupations, while medium-skill professions, which involve routine information processing such as accounting, typing or filing, have experienced contraction in the percentage of the workforce they employ domestically because many of these jobs have been outsourced to emerging economies.

Meanwhile, high-skill jobs, which typically include managerial, professional and technical occupations, have continued to attract a larger proportion of employees. The future of U.S. competitiveness depends on building and strengthening this highly skilled workforce, and creativity is the key to success in its related fields.

"At the top of the market are the jobs everyone wants. And guess what? These are the jobs that many graduates of the American education system are well prepared for. These jobs require creativity, problem solving, decision making, persuasive arguing and management skills. In this echelon, a worker's skills are unique, not interchangeable," Fast Company explains. "Technology and outsourcing routine tasks make these top workers even more powerful and productive, giving them even more data and tools with which to innovate."

Of course, the STEM fields are still crucial to maintaining U.S. economic strength, but because foreign workers are able to acquire strong scientific skills and education as well, what sets U.S. workers apart is the combination of STEM skills with creative capabilities. This melding of the technical and the abstract forms the cornerstone of innovation, which in turn drives business success.

So how can companies tap into the creativity of their employees? The answer is to treat creativity like a skill that needs to be identified, nurtured and trained. One effective way to do that is to foster a creative culture across the organization. Inc.com offers the following recommendations for generating creativity among the staff:

  • Instill passion. Every great idea begins with a passion for wanting to change the world, so make employees feel as if their work is having a significant impact.
  • Celebrate new ideas. Risk-taking and thinking outside the box should be rewarded, either through praise, career opportunities or perks.
  • Grant autonomy. Allowing team members to work independently to develop their ideas without having to run every detail by their superiors can encourage innovative thinking because creativity is an act of individual self-expression.
  • Support courage. Challenging the existing way of doing things requires bravery, so workers must feel safe to take creative risks without fear of punishment or judgment.
  • Fail successfully. In many companies, people are so scared of making mistakes that they avoid pursuing an innovative idea. The solution is to allow failures to occur and then move on quickly to keep up the momentum of experimentation and try out as many ideas as possible.
  • Think small. Smaller companies tend to be more nimble and curious about new concepts. Even if your business is large, try to maintain the hungry, entrepreneurial spirit of a smaller firm.
  • Improve diversity. Diversity of people and opinions, of work experiences, religions, nationalities, hobbies, political beliefs, races, sexual preferences, age, musical tastes and even favorite sports teams helps to build a creative culture.

"Often the only difference between creative and uncreative people is self-perception. Creative people see themselves as creative and give themselves the freedom to create...Being creative may just be a matter of setting aside the time needed to take a step back and allow yourself to ask yourself if there is a better way of doing something," professional development firm MindTools explains. "Another important attitude-shift is to view problems as opportunities for improvement. While this is something of a cliché, it is true. Whenever you solve a problem, you have a better product or service to offer afterwards."

There is no universal approach for fostering innovation among people or processes, nor is there is a set of contextual factors that can ensure success in creative thinking and the ability to translate that thinking into business performance. A creative culture often emerges from trial and error, and it depends heavily on the individual personalities involved in day-to-day work. However, there is a shared feature among creative employees, and that is the capacity for synthesizing dissonant ideas into a single goal.

"[T]here is indeed a common trait in the typical way creative thinkers approach challenges: They can comfortably hold opposing thoughts in their heads and get to work," frog design's Fabio Sergio writes at Fast Company's Co.Design. "Successful creative thinkers see opposites and apparently contradicting goals not just as a potential for dissonance, but as an opportunity for dynamic harmony."

Earlier

An Idea So Crazy it Might Work: Tips for Disruptive Thinking

U.S. Science and Engineering Report Card

Clever Ideas for Creative Thinking

Resources

Jobs vs. Skills: A Conundrum Based on Myth? by Mary Anne Petrillo Corporate Social Responsibility (Cisco Blog), Sept. 21, 2011

Why Education Without Creativity Isn't Enough by Anya Kamenetz Fast Company, Sept. 14, 2011

7 Steps to a Culture of Innovation by Josh Linkner Inc.com, June 16, 2011

Creativity Tools — Start Here! MindTools

The Truth: Creativity Comes from Blending Dissonant Goals into Radical Harmony by Fabio Sergio Co.Design (Fast Company), Jan. 26, 2012

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